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From touchless payments to 'quarantined' returns, the retail experience may be forever changed

“They are ensuring that customers wear PPE or follow social distancing but I will only go to a store in dire circumstances,” one shopper said.
A shopper browses clothing for sale at an Old Navy Inc. store in Santa Monica
With no vaccine yet available for the coronavirus, the role of the retail store has abruptly pivoted from a high-touch experience to safety and practicality as states begin to reopen nonessential businesses.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Eager shoppers will soon be able to browse their local retail stores as states continue to roll back stay-at-home orders. But instead of testing a swatch of lipsticks at a makeup counter or waiting in line to try on summer shorts, customers should expect “virtual try-on tools,” styling via app, shuttered fitting rooms, and returns that are quarantined for 72 hours.

Apple is the latest company to reopen stores, requiring face coverings for staff and customers, temperature checks at the door, conducting "health questions" to screen anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, and deep cleanings throughout the day.

"A store opening in no way means that we won't take the preventative step of closing it again should local conditions warrant," Deirdre O'Brien, Apple's senior vice president of retail and people, wrote in a blog post Sunday.

With no vaccine for the coronavirus on the market, the role of the retail store has abruptly pivoted from a high-touch experience to safety and practicality as states begin to reopen nonessential businesses.

But now safety and convenience are paramount to retailers’ ability to recoup some of their losses over the last several weeks as bleary-eyed customers venture out of lockdown to shop, according to Christa Hart, a senior managing director with the business advisory firm FTI Consulting.

“Brands are particularly cautious about how they’re perceived about how they care about the customers' safety and workers' safety,” she said.

Companies such as Gap Inc, which is preparing to reopen 800 stores beginning with several stores in Texas, said it is implementing rigorous new cleaning routines throughout each store and will require workers to wear facial coverings. Like other retailers, Kohl’s is posting signs throughout the store encouraging customers to observe social distancing guidelines.

Many retailers have also installed protective barriers at registers and will routinely clean lanes after each customer transaction. Several retailers, such as American Eagle and Nordstrom, will provide hand sanitizer for customers, while Kohl’s also set up additional hand sanitizer stations specifically for employees.

Some stores such as TJX, which owns TJMaxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods, said it “expects” customers to also wear facial coverings while shopping.

“No matter where people live in the world, we want our associates and customers to feel confident when they come back to work or shop in our stores,” TJX CEO Ernie Herrman said.

Aside from new sanitation practices, stores such as Gap are temporarily closing restrooms and quarantining returns for 24 hours before putting them back on the sales floor​. Nordstrom is keeping tried and returned merchandise off the sales floor for 72 hours. Gap and Kohl’s are also temporarily closing fitting rooms.

Ulta is taking special precautions with its salon services, which made up 5 percent of its sales volume in 2019. Hair services will only be available in certain stores and stylists and customers must both wear facial coverings and gloves. Nordstrom will now also offer contactless personal styling through its app, where customers and stylists can work together to create looks digitally.

Some companies, such as Warby Parker, which reopened some stores Thursday, have leaned on their existing e-commerce business to provide shoppers with a personal experience in the age of social distancing. The company offers eyeglass shoppers an online quiz to select five pairs of glasses to try at home and a virtual try-on tool on its site. It is also extending its virtual vision consultations in select states where its retail stores are still closed.

“The last couple of months have challenged all of us in ways we never could have imagined,” the company said in a statement. “Like so many others, we’ve needed to evolve every aspect of our business in response to COVID-19.”

Retailers have followed a phased approach to reopening stores in large part because the White House has left the decision to close businesses to individual states. This makes it more complicated for companies to determine where it is legal to open for business, and more importantly, where people are safe to shop. A dozen states at least partially reopened nonessential business before meeting the federal criteria, according to a Bloomberg analysis.

“There is no doubt that even under the most optimistic of scenarios, American families will be adjusting to a ‘new normal’ for some time to come."

But companies aren’t completely flying blind. Two separate retail trade associations, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Retail Federation, released a joint Blueprint for Shopping Safe, outlining a three-phase approach to reopening retail stores, which has been serving as a guide for companies in the absence of a national strategy.

“There is no doubt that even under the most optimistic of scenarios, American families will be adjusting to a ‘new normal’ for some time to come,” according to the guide.

Mall and apparel retailers that have been closed for weeks are also taking cues from essential businesses such as Kroger which have been adjusting with the fast changing pace of shopping as the virus spread over the last several weeks. Kroger, a chain of 2,800 grocery stores across 35 states, has seen sales skyrocket during the pandemic. The company shared its insights in a guide called Kroger’s Blueprint for Business and has provided assets to other retailers to use, including signs and audio.

“While there is no ‘one thing’ that makes all the difference, taking a comprehensive, thoughtful approach to safety will lead to better outcomes,” Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said.

Kroger started testing one-way aisles and seniors-only shopping hours in its grocery stores in April. Now, several retailers have adopted the same strategy to add space between merchandise in their stores and designate certain shopping hours for high-risk customers.

Kohl’s has also physically rearranged breakrooms, training rooms and offices to ensure proper social distancing. It created one entrance and exit to keep traffic flow in one direction and it has reduced the number of associates in the stores at one time to allow for social distancing.

“Previously when you walked into the store, you walked into the new releases of t-shirts for the spring and summer season,” said David Kopsch, a workforce skills consultant with the human resources firm Mercer. “Now the tables of clothes are farther apart from each other so customers have good social distance from each other.”

Shopping habits have also changed under lockdown as more people bought online, according to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index. U.S. e-commerce increased 49 percent in April, compared to the period in early March before shelter-in-place restrictions went into effect.

“We’re seeing them making a shift in online because their customers have moved online,” Kopsch said.

Retailers are now expanding options for customers to buy items online and pick them up at a store to help minimize contact. Williams Sonoma is providing appointment times for people to shop. Urban Outfitters is ramping up contactless payments, and Bed Bath & Beyond expanded its curbside pickup options to 750 stores. Kohl’s will offer touchless payment through Kohl’s Pay on its app. Meanwhile, about 70 At Home stores will offer curbside pickup or contactless next-day local delivery. More than 180 At Home stores will have buy-online-pickup-in-store options as well.

To support the demand in its online business, Ikea said it is gradually opening up certain stores to help fulfill online orders. It said that “operating in this limited capacity will allow us to begin to welcome back some of our furloughed hourly co-workers.”

But for retail’s thousands of workers, going back to work creates fear — and many of them will no longer receive hazard pay by the end of May. Many of them felt they had no other choice but to go back to work in the midst of a pandemic and a bleak job market.

The unemployment rate has soared to 14.7 percent, after months at a half-century low, wiping out all job gains since the Great Recession. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Sunday he believes that number could rise to the Depression-era level of 25 percent.

“We don’t have a choice financially,” said one worker at a Starbucks who asked to remain anonymous. “We have no idea which customers have been following procedures or who has been in hospitals. It’s a managed risk.”

With the virus still not contained, some shoppers are avoiding leisure shopping altogether. About 57 percent of shoppers in March and April came immediately home after a Target or Walmart run, according to the foot traffic analytics firm

Michell Tinoco, a college student quarantining with her family in Kansas City, Kansas, told NBC News she refuses to go to the mall or a retail store even though they opened in her state on Wednesday.

“They are ensuring that customers wear PPE or follow social distancing but I don't see a need to shop if there is no need,” said Tinoco, who recovered from the virus. “I will only go to a store in dire circumstances.”